Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Sebastian Brady
Monday, May 11, 2015, 2:00 PM

On Sunday, Houthi rebels in Yemen accepted a five-day ceasefire offered last week by Saudi Arabia. The New York Times reports that the temporary truce would begin Tuesday night and allow for the delivery of humanitarian aid. But since offering the truce, the Saudi-led coalition carrying out airstrikes in the country has ramped up its bombing campaign. The Wall Street Journal writes that the coalition has targeted several Houthi leaders, as well as former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has aligned himself and those forces still loyal to him with the Houthis.

As Saudi Arabia looks to gain ground in Yemen before the ceasefire begins, its new ruler has declined an invitation to the White House and the Camp David Summit this week. The Times explains that King Salman’s absence, which Saudi officials attributed to the timing of the ceasefire in Yemen, indicates Saudi displeasure with the Obama administration over its stance toward Iran. Indeed, the Wall Street Journal adds that the snub --- which leaves only two heads of state attending --- harms U.S. efforts to garner Arab support for a nuclear deal with Iran.

King Salman’s decision is in keeping with what the Times describes as his willingness to shake up the country’s traditional policies. After ascending to the throne earlier this year, the King has “rattled alliances with the United States and regional powers,” while moving toward a more muscular foreign policy and overhauling domestic leadership. According to one former U.S. ambassador to the country, “Now, suddenly, change has become the norm.” Despite the King’s absence, the upcoming Camp David summit presents a chance for the Obama administration to reassure worried allies in the region. Derek Chollet writes in DefenseOne that President Obama should use the occasion to “extend the Carter Doctrine” in the region along three main axes: maintaining military presence, enhancing partner capabilities, and facilitating regional security cooperation. Elsewhere in the Middle East, the Associated Press reports, a riot in an Iraqi prison resulted in the escape of 40 inmates and the deaths of six police officers and 30 prisoners, though other reports put the casualty figures higher. CNN adds that ISIS has claimed responsibility for the jail-break, though its version of events differs drastically from that of the Iraqi government. Violence continued across Iraq over the weekend as well, with several car bombs killing at least 15 and wounding dozens others. In an expansion of the fight against ISIS, the Shiite-led Iraqi government has begun training Sunni tribal fighters in Anbar province, the Wall Street Journal reports. The training program, which began with 1,000 recruits, opened to great fanfare on Friday, with the provincial governor saying, “Today is a day like no other because Iraqis…have reconciled. There will be no place for Daesh among us.” However, the Washington Post cautions that, while ISIS’s success in Iraq has pushed the government and Sunni tribal groups in Anbar to cooperate, distrust between the two sides persists. Said one Washington-based analyst, “The problem isn’t that the Islamic State has gotten stronger, it’s that Iraqi unity hasn’t gotten better.” As Iraq works to cobble together a viable force to reverse ISIS gains, the militant group appears to be undergoing an internal power struggle. Jamie Dettmer writes in the Daily Beast that ISIS’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, suffered serious injuries in a March airstrike and has been transported from Iraq to ISIS’s stronghold in Raqqa, Syria, to receive treatment, according to ISIS defectors. While Baghdadi is reportedly still mentally capable of giving orders, ISIS’s governing Shura Council is moving forward with plans to name a temporary leader to handle the day-to-day operations of the group. That decision supposedly pits Iraqi and Syrian factions against each other for operational control of ISIS. In Syria’s Qalamoun Mountains, Hezbollah and Syrian government forces continue to battle al Nusra Front, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Now reveals that, while Hezbollah sources claimed that they had gained ground from al Nusra, sources from a coalition of Syrian rebels reported that Hezbollah’s Special Forces commander was killed in fighting. The European Union is reportedly launching an effort today to gain a U.N. mandate to carry out military actions in Libyan waters to stem the flood of illegal migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea. The Guardian reveals that the European Union has already drawn up plans for the actions, which would involve sending E.U. vessels to Libyan waters and using helicopter gunships to strike the boats used by human traffickers to carry migrants across the Sea. E.U. officials have indicated that the measure may be able to avoid Chinese and Russian vetoes. In Afghanistan, 19 Hazara hostages were released in exchange for 22 Uzbeks held by the Afghan government, the AP reports. The released hostages were kidnapped in February with 11 other ethnic Hazaras, a long-persecuted minority in Afghanistan; the exchanged Uzbeks reportedly include women and children who may have been family members of the kidnappers. This morning, the U.S. State Department announced that Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to Russia to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin tomorrow. The Hill reports that the two will discuss a variety of issues, including Ukraine, Syria, and Iran. The Times adds that trip follows a series of unsuccessful attempts by the two countries to work together toward a political solution in Syria. The visit comes as Russia looks to be testing the military readiness of Western powers. The Times describes a series of recent Russian military maneuvers that appear to be probing the response times of NATO members. The Guardian reveals that, in response to the growing tension between Russia and the West, NATO is trying to strengthen military communication lines with Moscow while moving to expel suspected Russian spies from NATO headquarters. These communication networks recall the military-to-military hotlines that existed in the Cold War. As NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg explained to the Guardian, they are meant to reduce the risks of escalation between an increasingly-adventurous Kremlin and increasingly-uneasy western countries. In separate remarks earlier today, Secretary-General Stoltenberg, using what the Wall Street Journal describes as “some of the strongest language he has used to date,” stated that Russia has violated the Minsk ceasefire agreement meant to tamp down the conflict that has raged in eastern Ukraine for months. “In eastern Ukraine we see more loss of life, a rise in cease-fire violations, obstruction of the monitors, and continued Russian support for the separatists … This is a disturbing trend in the wrong direction.” He maintained that full implementation of the Minsk agreement remains the best way forward. Amid repeated Russian claims that none of its soldiers have been sent to Ukraine to support pro-Russian separatists fighting Ukrainian forces, Reuters reveals that some Russian soldiers are quitting the army rather than be sent to Ukraine. Five recently resigned soldiers told Reuters of the pressure to join the fight in Ukraine, which seems to undercut claims by Russian officials that any Russians present in the region are volunteers. The Hill reports that an Iran nuclear deal may in fact help Iran bolster its offensive cyber capabilities. The reduction of economic sanctions on Iran, experts say, would allow Iran to invest more in a cyber arsenal that has already penetrated critical networks in the United States and other countries. However, if a deal is not reached, Iran appears likely to target U.S. companies in retaliation. As Iranian cyber capabilities threaten to grow, U.S. efforts to dissuade Chinese hackers have largely fallen flat, the Times notes. Two years after announcing a new strategy to curb cyber espionage, the hacks continue apace. One digital expert explained that “There hasn’t been any change … There’s a lot more we can do. But we haven’t reached our pain point for taking more drastic steps on cyberespionage, and the Chinese haven’t reached their pain point for stopping it.” The Second Circuit’s decision last week that the NSA’s Section 215 program is illegal continued to make news over the weekend (see comments from Lawfare on the ruling here, here, here, here, here, and here). As pressure mounts on Congress to take action on the Section 215 before its June 1 sunset, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) defended the NSA’s Section 215 program as “an important tool to prevent the next terrorist attack.” Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC), chairman of the Senate Intelligence committee, said that the Second Circuit ruling significantly harms U.S. intelligence and “turns us back to pre-9/11.” On the other side of the debate, Sen. Ron Wyden pledged to block a clean renewal of Patriot Act provisions, including Section 215, such as that proposed by Sens. McConnell and Burr. On MSNBC yesterday, he said, “I'm tired of extending a bad law.” Beyond the legislative back-and-forth engendered by the ruling, the Post explains that the decision may have implications far beyond Section 215 and the NSA’s bulk data collection program based on it. Indeed, it could endanger other programs authorized by Section 215 and, due to its treatment of the government’s interpretation of the meaning of “relevance,” call into question other intelligence programs based on statutes with similar language. Foreign Policy looks into a proposal that would shift control of the U.S. drone program from the CIA to the Pentagon. While proponents of the shift argue that it could both increase the openness and the effectiveness of the program, those hopes might be overblown, as most drone strikes would be carried out under the purview of the Joint Special Operations Command. Indeed, one former high-ranking intelligence official cautioned, “Don’t think that JSOC doing it is going to be more transparent than the current situation … JSOC doesn’t talk much to the Armed Services [Committee] guys, compared to what some other committees get.” On Sunday, Seymour Hersh, the investigative reporter known for breaking the My Lai massacre and the Abu Ghraib prison scandal stories, published a story claiming that the U.S. account of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden is a lie. Apparently, the Pakistani government captured bin Laden in 2006, then decided in 2011 to sell him to the United States in exchange for various forms of aid, and insisted that the U.S. government play along with a fake story about a raid in Abbottabad. Vox, however, quickly published a story describing the various holes in the story, ranging from weak sources to basic narrative inconsistencies. In response to a letter from a congressman suggesting that the resettlement of six Guantanamo detainees in Uruguay violated certain security standards, the Obama administration defended its transfer. The Wall Street Journal has more on the defense offered by Assistant Secretary of State Julia Frifield and on the saga of the six detainees, four of whom are camping outside the American embassy in Montevideo to protest the U.S. government’s refusal to compensate them for their 12 years of detention without trial. Parting Shot: DefenseOne breaks down the nine most interesting drones showcased at the Unmanned Systems 2015 show.

ICYMI: This weekend, on Lawfare

Ben provided some thoughts on the Second Circuit’s recent opinion ruling that the NSA’s Section 215 program is illegal, and Yishai followed by offering a reply to Orin Kerr’s take on the decision. Staying on the topic of domestic surveillance, Kenneth Anderson brought us the newest installment of the Lawfare Research Paper Series: “An Essay on Domestic Surveillance,” by Philip B. Heymann. Joshua Rovner penned this week’s Foreign Policy Essay, which looked at the risk of politicized intelligence in the context of a potential Iran nuclear deal. Stewart Baker and Ben posted the audio from last week’s Triple Entente Beer Summit. Ben told us that Lawfare friend and contributing editor Matt Waxman will become the NSA’s new General Counsel. The Lawfare team wishes Matt the best of luck in his new role. Email the Roundup Team noteworthy law and security-related articles to include, and follow us on Twitter and Facebook for additional commentary on these issues. Sign up to receive Lawfare in your inbox. Visit our Events Calendar to learn about upcoming national security events, and check out relevant job openings on our Job Board.